Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, and losing Trout would cost the Angels more wins than the loss of any other player would cost any other franchise. But even with Mike Trout, we’re only projecting the Angels for 80 wins this year, and unless some of his teammates step up, the Angels might not be a factor in the postseason race this year. So, while no one is as singularly valuable as Trout is, there are some players whose performances might end up swinging a division race one way or another, especially because we don’t really know what they’re going to be.Today, let’s look at a few players with a wide range of potential outcomes who could play a critical role in determining whether their team ends up in the postseason this year.
Two years ago, Rendon put up a +6.5 win season and finished 5th in the MVP voting; last year, he played 80 games, put up a 97 wRC+, and was worth less than +1 win. There are plenty of reasons that the Nationals season went off the rails a year ago, but the loss of Rendon — and his relatively weak performance when he was on the field — was one of the primary reasons the team underperformed. This year, he’ll be shifting back to third base full time, his best defensive position, and the team is hopeful that a healthy Rendon will be able to drive the ball with authority once again. If he can rediscover his power, he could be among the game’s best third baseman.
If he can’t, or gets injured again, the drop-off could be pretty extreme. Stephen Drew looks like the first man up to fill the void, but Drew has been pretty terrible the last two years, and has actually only ever started one game at third base in his big league career, so it’s not even a certainty that he would be a defensive asset over there. The Nationals could slide Daniel Murphy over to third and promote Trea Turner to play the middle infield if Rendon was going to miss significant time, but while Turner looks like a quality shortstop in the making, he’s not going to be able to make up for Rendon’s offense.
The Nationals line-up needs a healthy Rendon to set the table for Bryce Harper, and if they can get him back to where he was two years ago, they can take the division title back from the Mets. If he struggles or is hurt yet again, the team doesn’t really have a great alternative, and it’s not clear where they’ll get non-Harper offensive production if not from Rendon.
One of the primary reasons our forecasts think the Red Sox are the best team in the AL East again is that Hanley Ramirez is projected as a reasonable performer at first base, forecasting +2 WAR from him in just 120 games played. The idea that he should bounce back offensively isn’t that tough a sell — a .257 BABIP for a guy with a .327 career mark isn’t going to last — but the projections are also assuming he’ll be fine defensively at first base, and that’s obviously something that’s difficult to know in advance. There were lots of assumptions that Ramirez would be fine in left field last year too, and instead, he turned out to be the worst defensive outfielder anyone has ever seen.
It’s entirely possible that Ramirez is again a defensive disaster, and that he simply doesn’t have the aptitude for playing quality defense in the major leagues, no matter where a team sticks him. If he ends up as a defensive liability at 1B, there probably won’t be enough offensive production to justify leaving him in the line-up on a daily basis, except the team doesn’t really have much in the way of first base depth. The presumed alternative, Travis Shaw, was just named the team’s starting third baseman, so now if the team wanted to replace Ramirez, they’d essentially be putting Pablo Sandoval back in the line-up, which isn’t exactly a huge upgrade.
If Ramirez lives up to our projections, he’ll be worth four wins more than he was a year ago, which is larger than the upgrade the team should expect from replacing Wade Miley with David Price. But there’s no question that projecting Ramirez’s value at first base is an exercise in dart-throwing, and this could all go sideways once again. If Ramirez doesn’t bounce back, the Red Sox may not either.
Many expect the Rangers to be the primary challengers to the Astros in the AL West this year, though our projections aren’t as excited about Texas’ chances. One of the primary reasons for the difference? The forecasts moderate expectations for Odor, the team’s young second baseman. ZIPS and Steamer see him as a little better than league average but nothing special, expecting +2.6 WAR over a full season worth of playing time, producing less value on a per game basis than he did in 2015.
But while the algorithms are taking the broad view, it’s not hard to think that Odor has the potential to be one of 2016’s breakout stars. His early-season struggles last year led to a demotion back to the minor leagues for a month, but after he returned to Texas on June 15th, he hit .292/.334/.527, with a .237 ISO and a 15% strikeout rate, the kinds of core skills that could make any player a big asset, much less a 22 year old middle infielder. While human beings have a tendency to overweight recent performance, the last three months of Odor’s performances were terrific, and given his age, it’s easy to connect it to real growth and improvement.
Given Odor’s power and contact skills, he certainly seems capable of crushing these projections, and ending the season as something more like a +4 or +5 win player, which would significantly boost the Rangers chances in the AL West. If the Rangers are going to compete with the Astros this season, they’ll very likely need Odor to hit more like he did in the second half of last season, rather than the average hitter that the forecasts expect in 2016.
Like with Texas, there’s a pretty significant disconnect between what our data says and the public expectations for the Diamondbacks. After a headline-generating offseason and a spring training where they’ve rolled over the Cactus League, the Diamondbacks see themselves as legitimate contenders for years to come. The team’s left field situation is one of the main reasons our forecasts don’t agree, as the calculations don’t expect Yasmany Tomas to develop into a useful player, and thinks the team will miss Ender Inciarte’s production more than they expect.
While we could easily list Tomas as the important player here, I think Brito might actually be the more likely solution, if the team is going to solve their left field situation internally anyway. Jeff recently did a nice job writing up Brito’s development, but the short version is that Brito is one of the fastest players in baseball, could be a significant defensive asset, and might have developed into an improved hitter in the second half last year. It’s not that hard to see him becoming something like Inciarte-lite.
That development could be even more important because of A.J. Pollock’s balky elbow. Not only is Brito perhaps the team’s best left field option, but he’s also going to be pressed into everyday duty if Pollock needs some DL time at any point during the season, and would need to make sure the team didn’t fall apart without one of their core stars. If Brito doesn’t develop, the team will be awfully thin behind Pollock, and could be in a world of trouble if Pollock gets hurt and Tomas continues to stink. Brito turning into a guy who hits enough to make his speed-and-defense package a valuable asset would go a long way to solving one of the team’s main weaknesses, and would give the D’Backs a much stronger chance to live up to their expectations.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.